In episode 2 of "Hell on Wheels" Season 5, fans were introduced to a mysterious, but impressively capable, Chinese immigrant named Fong. Fong’s grit and work ethic earns the respect of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) as the two men form an unlikely friendship. However, Fong is hiding a big secret – he is not a man at all. Fong is actually Mei – the AMC drama’s answer to “Mulan” – a woman disguising herself as man to survive and, hopefully, thrive in the unforgiving west. Angela Zhou, the New Zealand-raised actress tasked with the complex and demanding role, spoke with International Business Times about the challenges of playing Fong/Mei and the responsibility of curbing misplaced stereotypes on television.
International Business Times: I read that on your first day on set you and Anson Mount were flown to a cliff via a private plane to shoot your first scenes. I’m sure not every day is that glamourous, but what has been like working on a production of this scale?
Angela Zhou: It’s been such a dream because one day you’re working on small scale student films or non-union productions and then suddenly you are being flown to Canada where an entire city has been built, basically. The set is amazingly detailed. It’s got a couple of towns all rolled into one. There are hundreds of people on set, hundreds of extras every day. It’s a total dream come true.
IBTimes: How does that change things for you as an actor?
Zhou: In one sense it’s easier because the set decoration and the make-up and the costumes are so great that you really are convinced. Sometimes I’ll be sitting there and the extras are all walking around with their umbrellas, all fully in costume, walking around this dusty town, and I’m convinced! It’s only when people pull out their cell phones on a break that I go, “Wait, I’m actually just an actor, not a railroad worker. When there are a lot of people and you’re doing a lot of scenes…I was a little shyer at the beginning. You can be nervous when you’re on a big set, but everyone is so wonderful and it’s such a big family, so really after that it ends up just feeling like you and a whole bunch of your friends are creating something that you all believe in.
IBTimes: This has been the most physically demanding role you’ve had to date. What did you do to prepare?
Zhou: The funny thing is Tim Guinee [who plays Collis Huntington] had been sort of my personal trainer for the first couple of weeks, especially the first few scenes where the audience was not supposed to know that I was a girl. So we were working on trying to get my body as flat as possible and into a V with wide shoulders. So, he was taking me out to the gym and making me do these hand-stand push-ups against the wall (obviously I can’t do them by myself, he would assist me), he’d take me to the pull up bar and make me do pull ups, both with my hands facing inward and my hands facing outward and then he’d put my legs over the push-up bar and make me do sit-ups. So, he really worked me, but it was great because it made you feel strong like the character.
IBTimes: Lots of actors on “Hell on Wheels” have physically demanding roles, but you have to do everything moving like a man pretending to be a woman. Does that make it harder?
Zhou: I was lucky, because in all of the scenes where I had to do something difficult, like dangling off of the side of a cliff, by that point the audience already knew I was a female. So, that made it a little easier, because I remember asking how am I supposed to make noise, because my natural reaction to almost falling off the side of a cliff is going to be a girl’s scream instead of a manly scream. I don’t know if there’s much of a difference between dangling off of a cliff as man and dangling off of a cliff as a woman!
Watch Cullen and Fong/Mei navigate a snowy cliff in episode 2 of "Hell on Wheels" Season 5 below:
IBTimes: On top of pretending to be a man, your character is a minority in a world that was not necessarily very kind to minorities. What challenges did that present?
Zhou: I think it’s very interesting because in westerns we tend to not see a lot of Asians. It’s almost as if immigration didn’t happen until recently, which is, obviously, absurd. A lot of immigration happened during the 19th century. Then, when they were shown I think that’s why we have that stereotype of the passive Asian man, because a lot of the westerns that did show Asians showed them in more domestic settings, the people who were nannies and housekeepers. So, one thing that’s great about this show is it is telling the story from the minority’s point of view.
It’s interesting because the railroad is this feat that they used post-Civil War to unite the country that was torn by the war and it was this amazing feat touted as America’s great triumph, but what you realize is it was the work of many different types of Americans and often people who weren’t even actual American at the time, people who had just immigrated and were using this as a tool to feel like they were a part of this country. What I like about our show is it shows these more aggressive types of Asian immigrants. You have the entrepreneurial type in Chang (Byron Mann), you have the more traditional types, like Tao (Tzi Ma), who might just want to make their fortune and go back, and then you have Mei, who is torn between both of them because there are fewer rules in America and more of her personality can shine through.
IBTimes: Do you feel a responsibility to right some of the misconceptions about Chinese immigrants? Do you think the show is an opportunity to open people’s eyes a little bit?
Zhou: I think I take the show very seriously because of the fact that I feel like I’m representing a group of people who I feel very close to, but that I am not exactly related to by way of ancestry. So when I was trying to prep the accent I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a caricature and that I wasn’t poking fun at people, because a part of assimilation is language and people did legitimately have a lot of struggles with that. I read about journalists quoting Chinese immigrants with just horrendous language, so I took that very seriously. I think a lot of it has to do with the show’s writers. They don’t write us into weak characters. They are aggressive and strong, which was the pioneering spirit you needed in any race to survive in the west.
IBTimes: Your character is just pretending to be a man, as opposed to actually being transgendered, but did you feel any pressure on that front considering how much scrutiny there has been on those issues lately?
Zhou: Working with my transgender consultant was eye opening. I got to ask a lot of the questions that I myself had just been curious to ask, even things that did not necessarily relate to my character. What I realized is that is a struggle that I don’t necessarily understand personally and my character is just pretending to be a man, but they were able to offer deep insight into the differences between genders, these subtle differences in how they are treated or hold themselves. Then you think, wow, gender is a huge deal in terms of how we are perceived by society and how we walk and interact with the world around us. So, I would say that I’ve definitely learned a lot from the transgender community, but I couldn’t dare to speak on their behalf.
Watch Cullen discover that Fong is actaully Mei, a woman, in episode 2 of "Hell on Wheels" Season 5 below:
IBTimes: Your character has an interesting relationship with Anson Mount’s Cullen Bohannon on the show. They find a lot of common ground despite their superficial differences. Did you two talk a lot beforehand to create that chemistry or did it just happen on set?
Zhou: Anson and I are just buddies! We enjoy hanging out with each other. I think that might just be it. He’s the easiest guy to work with and just so helpful from the get go. I remember I told him I was working on the accent and he said, “Oh, I’m an acting teacher. Do you want me to run you through some vocal exercises?” He’s great to work with on set.
IBTimes: And would those two characters have been able to have that friendship in real life?
Zhou: There was a huge divide between cultures because a lot of the Chinese immigrants were there to just make a couple hundred dollars and go back to China, so they were very distrusting of Americans. I read stories of these prostitutes at a mission who were crying to go back to the brothel because they were so scared of the white people. However, on the flip side there are the ones who became Asian-Americans and wanted to settle in the States. Those were the ones were going to the missionaries and trying to learn English constantly. So, there was this communal understanding that you have something to teach me.
IBTimes: How about the future of your character on the show? It looks like Mei can trust Cullen, at least, with her secret, but what about the rest of the town. Do you foresee danger ahead?
Zhou: Well this is “Hell on Wheels,” there is always a lot of danger. I don’t know. Everyone’s going to have to stay tuned. All I can say is that Mei will come up against a lot of challenges. It’s going to be one hell of a ride!
"Hell on Wheels" airs on AMC on Saturdays at 9 p.m. EDT.